Category Archives: story

James K.A. Smith: ‘We were created for stories’

Two of the most-clicked posts on this blog have been Paul Holmer: How literature functions and Umberto Eco on theory and narrative. The common theme between the two might be that storytelling is not only necessary, but also of greater value than systematized and abstracted knowledge. Granted, the structure of Eco’s quotation seems to give priority to theorizing, but Holmer argues that humans learn more broadly and deeply from stories than from abstract or systematic knowledge.

So a quotation from James K.A. Smith’s book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church,  found in this recent review, was a welcome addition to the theme:

“We were created for stories, not propositions; for drama, not bullet points.”

In this context, it’s probably worth remembering that beloved storyteller C.S. Lewis warned against systematizing the Bible.


Flash fiction Friday: ‘Appearance’

While my six-year-old son screamed, Christ appeared to my eyes. The Lord was behind my son, bare feet on the asphalt beside the jackknifed bicycle, staring down at the boy. God’s punctured skin pulsed like tidal rivulets. Now on my son’s broken forehead, little snakes of red slithered downward. My hand moved in small degrees, as if through heavy petroleum, to my son’s face. Christ vanished. The bicycle tire still spun at a racer’s pace.

© 2012 Colin Foote Burch

Flash-fiction Friday: ‘Small Flames’

My most recent attempt at the Press 53 53-word story contest:

Mort watched the overdressed couple. The man cooked beside the lake and served a candlelight dinner. Later, the couple disrobed and swam in the muddy water. Mort crept to the piles of clothes. He took the woman’s slip and worshipped it with sniffs. Leaving, he loosened the propane line on the man’s stove.

Read the actual winner here.

What are your favorite short stories?

Updated 3:15 p.m. July 1

I’m a former newspaper guy who studied literary nonfiction (a.k.a. creative nonfiction) for his graduate degree, a master of fine arts, not a master of arts in literature.

So that’s my disclaimer about these choices.

And please comment with your favorites, however many you have.

Of course, some of these choices come from textbooks I’ve used while teaching, while others come from unrequired reading.

Babylon Revisited” by F. Scott Fitzgerald — one of my first short-story loves

“May Day” by F. Scott Fitzgerald — a relatively large cast of characters for a funny and devastating story

“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver — the finest secular understanding of spiritual elevation

A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor — placing the Gospel message in the mouth of a criminal, while showing us the false facade of a Southern woman’s faith

“The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams — a taut, tight thriller of a short story written by a doctor who also was a leader in poetry’s Imagist movement

“Flight” by John Steinbeck — this vivid pursuit in arid lands has stuck with me for decades, literally

“Accident” by Dave Eggers — a relatively minor car accident becomes a meaningful look into the human condition

“Incarnations of Burned Children” by David Foster Wallace — tight, unflinching, horrific, with a deep symbolic move

“Bigfoot Stole My Wife” by Ron Carlson — a hysterical journey through denial and the basis for belief

“Powder” by Tobias Wolff — redeeming a mess of a Dad in the unlikeliest setting

“The School” by Donald Barthelme — creepy students seep through the oblivious narrator’s perspective

“Elephant Feelings” by John Haskell — an historically based look at an elephant who was executed

“The Schreuderspitze” by Mark Helprin — could a dream be better than an actual achievement?

“Letters from the Samantha” by Mark Helprin — a different kind of albatross

“Frontiers” by John M. Daniel — a 5-year-old on a new adventure, short and perfect (only 101 words)

My Kinsman, Major Molineux” by Nathaniel Hawthorne — striking images from the pre-Revolutionary era surround a boy’s journey from the country to the city, where he figures out his search for his kinsman is a joke at his expense

The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe — using kindness and a common interest to exact revenge

The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allan Poe — the godfather of the detective story gets started with a case of hiding in plain sight

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson — a psychologically astute (and horrific) use of the third-person-objective point of view

Tip Jar

The parable of the fire

The old man noticed a small ember, so he found some dry leaves and carefully placed them around the glow. He blew gently until a leaf began to sparkle and smoke.

Then, the old man leaned small twigs against each other, just above the smoking, sparkling dry leaf. Again, he blew gently. Another leaf began to sparkle, and now some of twigs smoked, too.

Finally, a tiny fire burned and crackled.

Yet now the old man’s time to attend the fire had come to an end, and a younger man was called to care for the flames.

The young man puzzled over the small fire. It was a fire, but it was too small. He thought the old man had not been passionate enough about building this fire. How was such a small fire going to be useful?

The young man, full of zeal, decided to build the tiny flames into a great fire. First, he gathered larger twigs, and also branches.

Then he kneeled down by the small fire. “The old man blew gently, but too gently,” he thought.

“If a small breeze will summon this fire,” he reasoned, “then a great wind will build the flames higher.”

So the young man inhaled deeply and blew into the little flames.

A black puff of smoke went up, and as the aired slowly cleared, the young man excitedly awaited to see a brighter blaze.

When the smoke was gone, the young man saw that the fire had been entirely extinguished, and not a single glowing ember remained.

Robert Fitzgerald on Flannery O’Connor, or a note on showing versus telling

When he spoke at Trinity-Myrtle Beach in earlier this month, Kendall Harmon in passing mentioned the need to cultivate the imagination. This morning, I read the beginning of Robert Fitzgerald’s introduction to Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge. Fitzgerald wrote:

“Bearing hard upon motives and manners, her stories as moralities cut in every direction and sometimes go to the bone of regional and social truth. But we are not likely to state what they show as well as they show it…. We had better let our awareness of the knowledge in her stories grow quietly without forcing it, for nothing could be worse than to treat them straight off as problems for exegesis or texts to preach on.”

I want to put a spin on that “awareness” that Fitzgerald says should “grow quietly.” I think it grows quietly once it resides in the imagination. Mere information can fail human beings. A grand vision, seen through our imaginations and genuinely hoped-for in our hearts, can sustain us. What feeds that imagination and that hope? Often it is stories and figurative language — parables and metaphors that immerse us in a grand vision before we realize we have crossed into new territory. What grand vision has possessed your imagination?

C.S. Lewis on writing fiction — a view that places story first, message second

I’ve never started from a message or a moral, have you? …. The story itself should force its moral upon you. You find out what the moral is by writing the story.” — C.S. Lewis, during a recorded conversation with authors Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss, in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalene College; from Of Other Worlds: Essays & Stories, a collection of Lewis’s writings edited by Walter Hooper

***Many, many moons later, Jerome Stern closed his comments on the literary form of allegory with this:

“But fiction has to succeed on it’s own terms. Ideas don’t bring life to a story. The story brings life to the ideas.” (from Making Shapely Fiction)